By Melissa O'Brien
Coming up with fresh design ideas for PHS maintained public gardens and landscapes is part art and part science. Designing for well-traveled, urban areas such as Philadelphia brings challenges and opportunities to create a garden that is not only beautiful but also sustainable. "We do a lot of naturalistic style gardens using native plants because they're tough and they're adapted to this environment,” says Leah Blanton, one of PHS’s design and procurement managers.
“Ultimately, the goal is to have a dynamic garden, which instills a feeling as one walks throughout — I want people to observe, take a moment for themselves, and be inspired,” says Sam Keitch, who is also a design and procurement manager at PHS.
Here, Sam and Leah guide you through the public garden and landscape design process, share sources of inspiration, and offer advice for home gardeners dabbling in design.
The first step in any new design project is to inventory the site to understand the conditions and what already exists. “Typically, our sites are challenging because they’re really public and heavily used, so they have compacted soils,” says Leah.
After getting the lay of the land, PHS designers put together the planting design based on the location of the site, intended style, and what plants will thrive there with minimal maintenance. Leah says it is important to design public gardens from a holistic point of view, considering the end-user and how they will experience the space. For example, someone walking their dog at the Delaware River Waterfront is likely just passing through, whereas someone visiting the PHS Pop Up Garden at Manayunk may have time to appreciate a more detailed and layered design while they enjoy time with friends over a cocktail.
Once the concept is approved, the layout can be created and then installed. One example of a large-scale design project the PHS team is proud of is the Subaru corporate campus. Sam says:
“We designed the site with certain constraints and recognized opportunities. The [chosen] perennials highlighted different seasons, the grasses established large areas, and the trees and shrubs were urban tolerant. All the foresight contributed to a well-rounded and collective success. It's a very fun site to work on and walk around because it’s refreshingly different in its aesthetic compared to the typical corporate office layout.”
Growing up near Longwood Gardens, Sam was surrounded by talented horticulturists from a young age. “I’ve been fortunate to work at many public gardens with very talented designers. When you surround yourself with passionate people, they influence you,” he says.
Leah finds inspiration in nature from observing different landscape ecotypes. She says, “A lot of my inspiration comes from being outside, looking at what's around me, and being interested in the native plants of this area that are in danger of declining or disappearing.” She also likes to picture different landscapes — such as a meadow or woodland — and imagine the feelings or plants people associate with them. She then uses this as inspiration when selecting plants for her designs.
“I think people should avoid just picking plants,” says Sam, who prefers to get to know a site, its circulation, sight lines, and history first. “Studying landscape architecture helped me with a more disciplined process, forcing me to inventory a site, analyze it for possibilities, and then vet multiple concepts. People are often committed to an idea from its conception, but I think you must start anew again and again. Once a design is figured out spatially, the hardscape and furnishings dialed in, then it’s the fun part.”
Leah wants home gardeners to know that trial and error is a natural part of the design process, and every growing season offers an opportunity to start anew. “Gardening is trying, and trying, and trying again. If you have an idea, that's all that you need to do it — don't get discouraged!”